Teaching children to say “thank you” (even when they don’t like the gift)

It is holiday gift-giving time again and we revisit a past post on helping children to say thank you.

“That’s not the one I wanted”, “I already have this”, or “What an ugly sweater” are not things that you want to hear as children unwrap gifts during the holidays. And you especially don’t want the gift-givers to hear them!

Teaching your children to express gratitude, even if they don’t like or want the gift, is important to family harmony and even to your kids’ health. But sometimes it can be hard to be truly thankful for the ugly sweater. Parents also make the good point: “I don’t want to tell my child to lie and say that they like something that they don’t.” Teaching our children to be truthful without being hurtful is sometimes difficult. But there are ways that you can help your child to express appreciation and avoid expressing negative thoughts:

  1. Talk with your child before you open presents. Before you start to open presents on the big day(s), sit down with your child and talk about what is going to happen. This is probably best done the day before so your child is better able to focus. Let her know that there are going to be presents and that she may not like all of them. But reinforce the idea of saying “thank you” for the gift.
  1. Role play with your child. It can be hard for children, especially young ones, to know what to say in the moment, even if you have talked with them beforehand. One way to help them respond appropriately is to practice with them before the big event. It could go something like this:

“When someone gives you a present or does something nice for you, you can smile and say “thank you!” If you give me a present and I make a face like this (disappointed face) and said “I don’t like this!” would that be kind? How would that make you feel? What could I do to be kind? Could I smile and say “thank you!”? Right! That would be a kind thing to do. How do you think that would make you feel? Probably good, huh? I know that you are going to be able to do the kind thing when you open your presents!”

And you can practice handing your child a present and having them smile and say thank you.

  1. Focus on the thought, not the gift. You can talk to your child about the thought behind the gifts such as “Grandma really wanted to let you know that she loves you by giving you a present”. Then let him know that even if he doesn’t like the present, he can thank the giver for the idea, like “Thanks for wanting to keep me warm” for an ugly sweater. Talk about how saying thank you helps others to feel good and making negative comments may hurt their feelings (as above).

For younger children, this can be a hard concept, so you might want to be prepared to thank the givers yourself, if your child isn’t able to do so in the moment. Or you might want to open presents privately, without the givers.

  1. Notice the details. The whole present may not be what your child wanted, but she may be able to pick a detail that is nice, perhaps that the hat is her favorite color (even if it is too floppy). Then she can genuinely say something nice about the gift to the giver: “You remembered my favorite color. Thank you!”
  1. Model saying thank you. As we have said before, the best way to teach your child how to do something is to show them. So let them see you being grateful to others for gifts (and other things like nice deeds and compliments). Model finding something nice to say even if you are disappointed. And you can talk to them afterwards about how you found something nice to say.
  1. Write thank you notes. In the days of internet and social media, it can be hard to remember when people used to write letters. But a hand-written card (or drawing from a younger child) can be the best sort of thank you. Here’s a great link for suggestions about how to send thank you notes and what to say.

Helping children to be able to say “thank you” for the thought and not necessarily the gift can provide them with a really important social skill that will help them this holiday season and into the future. And being able to see the love in an ugly sweater can be a wonderful thing!

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Image: © Showface| Dreamstime.com

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